Grappling with the challenges of paying rent and affording legal representation, Ithaca renters have been especially susceptible to displacement this past year.
The city government, Cornell Law School and the Ithaca Tenants Union are collaborating to assist those facing eviction, as national economic crisis has left renters vulnerable.
A new tenant housing hotline created by Ithaca Tenants Union, a practicum law class — where law students can provide cost-free legal advice or assistance to tenants while earning credit for their work — along with monetary assistance from a grant are being used to support renters through emergency rental assistance and legal resources.
In January, Ithaca received the $1 million grant from Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit organization that works to stabilize housing in low-income communities. Its purpose is to provide emergency funds for people to pay their rent, and funds both the practicum law class and the housing hotline.
The unemployment that soared following the shutdowns early on in the pandemic laid bare the lack of affordable housing in Ithaca, making it even more difficult for tenants to live in the city.
“The price of housing is too high, and whenever that happens, two things will follow,” Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 told The Sun. “People will be pushed into homelessness, and people will be displaced out of our community. And they can’t afford rent.”
The chain of tenant relief initiatives began last summer, when the city government used public funding to prevent housing loss for low-income tenants in the area. This rental assistant program offered to pay up to three month’s rent for households that met a certain set of criteria, such as income and experiencing an economic impact from COVID-19.
To supplement the rental assistance with legal aid, one of the first steps was working with the Legal Assistance of Western New York and Cornell law students to provide pro-bono legal services. Without right to counsel laws, many Ithacans are left without resources for affordable legal representation or advice.
“Ithaca should have right to counsel laws for tenants being brought to court, but under current leadership it doesn’t — so over 90% of tenants go without costly legal representation,” the ITU wrote in an email to The Sun. “Until that right is codified, projects like this grant are crucial for getting fair trials for the 70 percent of this city that rents our housing,”
In addition to distributing monetary resources, the Ithaca Tenants Union partnered with the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York over the summer to create a “housing hotline” for local residents when dealing with problems from eviction to security deposit questions.
The hotline started in the summer as housing security concerns skyrocketed, as shutdowns began and residents lost their jobs or lacked steady employment, according to Sandile Magagula, J.D. candidate ’22.
After creating the hotline, Cornell Law has worked with the City of Ithaca since the summer to help the cause. Law students and seasoned attorneys alike have worked on the project, taking on cases from the hotline, according to Prof. William Niebel, law.
In the fall semester, after Michaela Azemi, director of pro bono services and externships at Cornell Law School, advocated for a class, Cornell Law created the Tenant Advocacy Practicum.
“I think we saw that there was a big disparity between the powers of landlords and tenants,” Magagula said. “A lot of times, tenants need the basic information to be able to know what exactly their rights are, so they can operate off of those rights rather than being in a position of not understanding or not knowing.”
To prevent housing loss and offer legal aid to renters, the Tenant Advocacy practicum has carried from the fall into the spring semester. Part of the grant has been used to run the practicum at the law school for the next three years, Niebel said.
According to Niebel, six students carried over from the fall into the second practicum this spring. They are continuing to build on what they learned, now looking at representing tenants in court for the first time.
The law students enrolled in the class now have a student practice order from the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, meaning that the court has allowed students to move into practicing and representing people in court under Niebel’s supervision.
“It’s all very exciting how it’s grown and progressed in just the last couple of semesters here,” Niebel said.
The law students are primarily the ones in contact with the client. They get the facts, conduct the research and advise the client, according to Niebel.
“Having something where I’m actually helping the community that I’m living in has been a great feeling, and we can tell that it’s been reciprocated by the community,” Magagula said. “I’ve spoken to numerous people who are extremely happy that such a resource now exists.”